Why, Hello, Summer.

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It seems that lately, most of the people I talk to about summer plans say, “We have no plans. We go to the pool every day!” Speaking for myself, I might not mind going to the pool every day under two conditions: 1) the water is warm; 2) there’s plenty of shade. But since those two conditions don’t really exist where I live (especially in conjunction with each other!), the pool feels more like a chore to me than a pleasure. I really, really, really, really hate sunscreen. (Really.) And squinting. And when you have four kids who are only so-so swimmers, taking kids to the pool involves being at maximum mental capacity from the time you enter the enclosure until the time you leave it. This will be the first year I feel like I can take them by myself at all.

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Summer break, day one: helping Grandma rid her flower bed of rocks.

I’ve spent a lot of time pondering how to spend these summer months wisely. Field trips are good. I do like the fact that the kids get to sleep in, because it means I have more than 45 minutes of work time at 5:30 a.m., which is hands down my best brain time of the day. I like having evenings open, where we aren’t in a high-stress, get-out-the-door mode.

But unstructured doesn’t seem to work for us. My kids fight a lot. And they get bored easily. And while I could stupefy them with screen time, they always fight more afterward. And it’s really hard to concentrate on, say, novel plotting, while Julianna is reading Sophia, the Little Mermaid, or Anna and Elsa in her compressed, monotone (read that: loud) voice and Alex is practicing piano and the other two are fighting over Lego, or light sabers, or who gets to go first at Gobblet. It’s hard even to concentrate enough to write this blog post.

Since it’s so hard, I tend to problem solve it a lot. And the result is that last summer, I was so focused on creating productive time, I felt like I kind of cheated my kids.

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But we’re leaving behind the jawbones and other skeletal remains of the hogs that were composted in this sawdust. I’m quite sure every child in my kids’ schools envisions spending Day One of summer break doing just such archaeological excavations.

So this year, I’m committed to doing a better job of splitting the difference. To that end, I’m setting some general guidelines along the lines of New Years Resolutions. Because I know I will make time to write, I’m not even talking about that.

1. Pool twice a week.

2. Practice my flute half an hour a day, five days a week. Well, four at a minimum. (How far I’ve fallen from the years when I walked through a blizzard to practice four hours every single day!)

3. “Homework” time—a single worksheet or flash cards for the three younger ones, at least twice a week once summer school lets out. That may seem cruel and unusual, but the teachers have asked for it.

4. Field trips. I did the prep work, so we already are committed to two multi-day trips and one day excursion for Pit Stops For Kids. And if last summer taught me anything, it is that the distance between the end of summer school and the start of the fall semester isn’t as great as it seems, so I’m only listing three more “must-do” field trips, two of which are local.

5. I’ve promised Alex I will make time from my Womens Fiction Writers Association challenge to read a series of books that he loves, called the Unwanteds. I’m on book two.

What about you? Do you make plans for the summer? Or does unstructured really work for your families?

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The Problem(s) With Mother’s Day

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How Motherhood is Supposed To Look

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How motherhood ACTUALLY looks today. Photo by Sangudo, via Flickr

The problems with Mothers Day are legion.

1. It’s not fair to the dads. Mother’s day is way, way, way bigger a deal than Father’s Day, and that’s just not okay.

2. Everybody wants to give mom gifts for one day, make these adorable crafts that you’re expected to keep for all time, and it often seems to me that we’d rather substitute sentiment for actual, you know, LOVE. Like, recognizing that what Mom really needs is help ALL THE TIME, not some craft that just adds to the mess and only honors you one day a year anyway!

3. While we’re on that subject, let’s talk about lightsabers, books, individual LEGO pieces, Captain America Shields, bookbags, knot rosaries, school crafts, school papers, Wii remotes, DVDs no one has watched, scrapbooks, candy wrappers, pencils, erasers, crayons, play doh, soccer balls, bouncy balls, basketballs, crappy party-favor pinball mazes (do you get the idea?) left lying wherever you lost interest in them, cluttering up the world. And yet if i throw anything away, woe to me!

3a. While we’re on that subject, let’s talk about “Put away your clothes,” and how that translates to “I’m going to read a book/build a marble run/stuff them in a wad under the closet rod/ignore you completely” the first FIVE TIMES I SAY IT.

4. Nor does it matter how many times we teach, discuss, or give consequences. Nor does it matter how many attempts at organizational systems we put together.

5. And then there’s the outcry and protest whenever I assign jobs: “I did that last week!” and “no fair, he never has to!…”

6. And then there’s the inevitable annual inner conflict between “I am a mother” and “I HAVE a mother.” How do you balance being the recipient of all this attention with giving it appropriately to the one who gave you life? And then of course, your husband has a mother, too. It’s like you have to choose who gets your attention, and then even if the other one (or more, depending on if you have broken families) doesn’t feel hurt, you inevitably are aware that you’re prioritizing one over another. When I start griping about the way a holiday is celebrated, one of my sisters always gives me grief about it (“is there any holiday you DO like?” she’s asked me), but this is why: I don’t see how we can possibly honor our mothers as we’re supposed to on this day and at the same time accept that honor ourselves. It’s like the system is stacked against us.

7. Yes, I know. This is what parenthood is: assuming heroic, even foolhardy, responsibility for other human beings. To burn away their innate selfishness and teach them to be Good People is not just a job. It’s not even just a vocation. It’s something that is way, way bigger than any of us. And when I think about how much time I spend worrying about whether someone’s going to call DFS because I let my kid climb a tree or because he fell down and skinned his knee and is screaming as if he’s had his leg torn off by a shark…well, I get kind of pissy. And when the kids fall to demanding, whining, and being lazy/disobedient despite the fact that they really aren’t being asked to do all that much, and they’re given way more privileges than I ever got growing up? Then I have a Mommy Meltdown. And we start making new lists to hang on the pantry door.

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Yeah, Happy Mothers Day to you, too.

Love, Kate

Linking to 7 Quick Takes, because I’m sure they’re all talking about motherhood today, too. Although probably with less angst.

Playing Favorites

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Image by Rusty Ross, via Flickr

I can’t be the only parent who lives in dread of playing favorites.

Especially of having a “favorite child.”

The online “soundtrack” of parenting reflections has presented me more than once with the theory that you butt heads with the child who resembles you most. But I think this is only true for certain personality types. If you are a strong-willed individual, committed to your own opinions above the approval of others, whose vision of the world is so clear that you can’t always put yourself in others’ shoes—if you have a child who mirrors you in these attributes, yes, you are almost certain to butt heads.

But if you are an introverted, deeply analytical puzzler who is very sensitive to the approval and opinions of others, and who values getting along more than getting your own way? If you have a child who mirrors you in these attributes, you’re not going to butt heads. You’re going to recognize each other as kindred spirits.

And if you have one child who completely befuddles you, because none of their choices make any sense to you as a person who values cooperation and compromise, you are going to struggle more to show that child love in the way he or she will recognize it.

I do not accept, however, that this constitutes playing favorites. Having such a child requires a parent to expend far more mental, emotional and spiritual energy trying to work out the puzzle that is that child, to figure out how to speak to and guide that child’s soul, and help them feel that they are loved. Far more than the children you just “get” instinctively. It’s way more work, and you might not always do it well, but the commitment is real and so is the love behind it.

Family Game Night In the Wake of a Successful Writing Contest

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Photo by JBLivin, via Flickr

We have a tradition of family game night in our house. Actually, “tradition” is a little strong. We made a commitment to devote Friday nights to this purpose, but our success rate is about 40-50%. (AKA “better than nothing!”)

It’s supposed to be a no-technology night. But the kids have been begging for a “family video game night” for months. Since I never even played video games as a kid, I have always resisted.

Still, this Friday was a big day in my world. I found out I got two requests from literary agents on my novel via Pitch Madness: Mario Kart.

So I was feeling expansive. And a bit curious, too, because I had never actually paid attention to Mario Kart, and so my team— “Rainbow Road”—and my agent bids— “star” and “mega mushroom”—were nothing more than amorphous hovering objects which I know you occasionally are supposed to run over…although what you gain from it I have no idea.

I was also feeling expansive because Alex had been poring over my computer screen after school, looking at the symbols and asking me to explain what a “query” was, and what “three chapters” or “full” or “ten-page critique” meant. It was a rare moment in which our overarching interests aligned.

I decided, Why not have a family video game night?

So Julianna and I sang Aladdin on the Disney Sing It game (I am chagrined to admit that I, the semi-professional singer, only got 3/5 stars…on EASY. Then again, they expected you to sing both parts of the duet, even when they overlapped), and the guys played Wii baseball and tennis, and then we put on Mario Kart. I said, “Hey, show me Rainbow Road, so I know what this thing looks like!”

“Oooooooh, man, you guys’re in TROUBLE!” yelled Alex.

“Why?” I asked.

“Because it’s IMPOSSIBLE!”

So Christian and I sat on the couch and watched our three youngest children repeatedly launch themselves off the edge of Rainbow Road and burn up on re-entry. I haven’t laughed that hard in a long time. It was less funny when Julianna asked me for “help,” and I started burning up myself.

And then, Christian found the Zurg blaster and decided to spice up the game even more by shooting foam balls at the kids and the TV, and…

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Why yes, in fact that is a picture tube TV.

Oh, it was a good night. And just as we came round the last bend, Alex cried, “Mom, THAT’S a mega mushroom! Get it! It makes you HUGE!”

Ah, the moments when all disparate pieces of your life converge upon a single point…

It’s a beautiful thing.

The Babies I’ll Never Have

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Nicholas, March 2009

It is Saturday afternoon and I am folding baby clothes—new, soft, tiny baby clothes—and layering them lovingly into a gift box for one of our choir members. I had forgotten how much I love baby clothes. I love everything about babies. You know, I don’t even hate the diaper changes. Did I get tired of them? Yes. But that was also play time. Tickle time, raspberry time, rubbing-noses time, sing silly songs time.

Besides, I was a breastfeeding mom. Those diapers are different.

Sitting on my bed, assembling this gift, it’s almost crushing, how much I want a baby.

I have to remind myself that I sometimes can barely breathe. How little people are constantly yelling “Mom I want” and “Mommy help me,” how I fluctuate between a wild frustration that they don’t help more than they do and a desire to do it all myself because it’s easier than teaching (and battling) them to do it. How there aren’t enough hours in the day and how long Julianna’s homework takes, and how this year I hardly even weeded my flower beds because I was so busy.

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My favorite picture ever taken of me.

I have to remind myself that the price of four C sections is “irritable uterus” and the risk of rupture. I need to remember that my primary responsibility is to the family I already have. My job isn’t to keep having babies, just because I love them. It is to raise holy and happy adults. And sooner or later, you have to leave off the former because the latter takes so much time and energy.

My life has entered a new stage. But it’s a sweet pain, folding these baby clothes. I think this is what people in the natural family planning community mean when they say every month you grieve the child you could have had, even though you know it’s not the right time.

I feel it every month now, although some are worse than others. And I wonder if it will eventually fade, or if this is part of who I am now.

A Good Day

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CookiesSome days are just really good days. Or good evenings, anyway.

And they don’t always start off on the most promising foot, either. Like when you glance down at the gas gauge on the way to carpool and go, “Oh, #$%#, I’m sitting on empty!” And then you have to go 1) to school, 2) bring the first wave of kids home, 3) catch the second wave coming off the bus, 4) go back and pick up the third wave. And now, you have to add a trip to the gas station. And that’s on top of having to do dishes and make the kids clean the bathrooms so we can bake and decorate the gingerbread and chocolate cutout cookies, like the Advent calendar promised.

But things started to change on the way home from the third wave, when the three youngest kids started singing Christmas carols. Michael couldn’t figure out all the words to “Santa Claus is Coming To Town.” He was very creative with his exploration of the topic. After fifteen minutes he settled on this:

“OHHHHH YOU BETTER WATCH OUT, YOU BETTER NOT CRY, BETTER NOT POUT I’M TELLING YOU WHY, SANTA CLAUS IS COMING TO TOWN! He sees you when…He sees you when you’re awake! He sees you when you’re….eating! He sees you when you….he gets mad at you, for goodness sake! OHHHHHHH YOU BETTER WATCH OUT!….”

In the front seat, Alex’s need to snort and giggle overcame his everything-in-my-life-is-boring attitude.

And then we got home, and something amazing happened while I did dishes and baked cookies.

My kids cleaned the bathrooms.

And they didn’t fight.

I mean, this was certainly not the world’s most stellar cleaning job. But every one of them did their job. And I didn’t have to yell at anyone. And they didn’t fight.

They all ate their dinner, too.

And then we had a visit from a student who’s been “shadowing” our family all semester, and they decorated the cookies without a single instance of fighting or of me having to come over and supervise. I can’t tell you how much I a) loathe cookies with icing on them, and for that reason b) loathe decorating cookies. So it was lovely to have them entertain themselves—without fighting—while I got the dishes done. (Did I mention they WEREN’T FIGHTING?)

“I’m gonna eat anuvver cookie,” Michael said, turning his sweet little face to his daddy.

“I told you ONE cookie, Michael,” I said. Or rather, I opened my mouth to say it. Because Michael didn’t stop talking.

“I get two cookies now, because I am four,” he said seriously.

Christian turned away and looked at me, laughing…and Michael ate his second cookie.

To crown the night, as our guest left, she gave us a lovely compliment about what a great family we were to shadow. After she left, Christian and I looked at each other. “Well,” he said, “we could make ourselves one of the worst families there is to shadow. We could yell at the kids all the time.”

“We do yell at the kids all the time,” I said.

He laughed and started stomping up the stairs. “Fee, fi, fo, fum!” he said in a deep voice. “I’m gonna EAT anyone who’s not in bed!”

And upstairs, there was an outpouring of giggles and squeals.

Yup. Some days are just good days.

Mental Space (or: Why I Had Such A Hard Summer)

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We didn’t go on any field trips this year.

This has been bothering me all summer. For the last several years, this has been the structure of our summers, and it’s something the kids look forward to. As the summer unfolded, I couldn’t figure out why we couldn’t make it work. There was really nothing so different this year from prior years. Like last year, we had two kids in summer school; like last year, we had swim lessons; like last year, we had two kids in baseball. But we did field trips last year. What’s the difference this year?

Photo by topgold, via Flickr

It goes farther back than that, actually. I was kind of a hot mess in April and May as well, but in April and May I thought it was going to settle down once all the end-of-year concerts and events were over. I kept wailing to Christian, “This baseball season is so much more intense than last year!”

He protested. “How is it more intense? It’s the same as last year.”

All I knew was that all through the month of June, I felt on the verge of breakdown. I chalked it up to two things: 1) Christian coaching, and 2) preparing for the big trip to Grand Rapids—a big summer vacation was one thing we did not do last year. Because that trip was doing triple duty—family vacation, travel writing, and music conference—the bulk of the prep work was on me.

The summer improved dramatically once we got on the road, but even afterward, there were no field trips. I just could not get it together.

Now, why am I sharing all this with you? Because my spiritual director offered me an insight yesterday that I think might be as illuminating to others as it was to me.

She suggested that as children develop their own lives and interests, there becomes more for Mom (or primary caregiver) to keep track of. There may not be more running around than there was before, but there’s more mental energy required.

This was a light bulb moment for me. When they were littler we stayed busy, but our lives and worlds were wholly intertwined. We were one unit, a streamlined process.

These days, as logistics mom, I’m constantly making and adjusting plans, trying to figure out how to get my own needs met around the edges of theirs. And trying to help them be successful at learning to be responsible for their own equipment, for instance. You know what I mean: it takes far more mental energy to get four kids to remember to bring all the things they need—snack, water bottle, baseball bag—than it is for me to pack it all myself. But they need to learn responsibility. The upshot? Not only do I have to make sure everything gets in the car, I have to make sure somebody else has thought it through and put it in the car. Which means remembering everything not once, but three or four or five times (because every parent knows that no kid remembers everything with one reminder).

In other words, we’re not physically doing more. It’s just all taking much, much more mental space.

This all makes perfect sense to me. Doing has rarely flipped me out. But I have a finite amount of mental energy. If I’m expending most of it trying to corral the masses and remember everything for everyone, plus teach them how to remember it themselves, all while still trying to do my work-from-home schtick?

Photo by eamoncurry123, via Flickr

Well, it’s no wonder I felt like I was on the verge of breakdown. We’re not meant to run at full brain capacity 24/7.

And it makes sense, too, why Christian wouldn’t have felt the difference, because he didn’t have nearly as much of that brain-logistics dynamic to deal with, because he’s not the at-home parent.

There aren’t any solutions in this insight, but at least now I know there’s a reason for how I felt. I no longer think I’m a) crazy for feeling this way, or worse: b) a whiner.